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I’ll Feel What She’s Feeling

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It’s one of the most magical properties of fiction, the way we can share in the emotions of an entirely imagined character—and understand the emotions of the people that person encounters in the story.

I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the main reasons those of us who write fiction got into this game to begin with.

As the great Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I think the same is true of the books we love: we might forget their plots, but we never forget how they made us feel, and how they made us feel is what made us want to become writers ourselves.

But conveying emotion in fiction is also magic in the sense of stage magic—there’s a craft to it that’s not at all obvious from the outside. Because when it works, you don’t see what the writer is doing, you’re just caught up in the emotions of the story.

If so, then consider this post your primer on this essential bit of prestidigitation in fiction.

Avoid overt statements of emotion (or, at least, don’t rely on them to get the job done)

Newer writers tend to just come out and state the emotion of the POV character overtly, as in “John felt sad,” or “Julia was furious.”

Rather than allowing the reader to experience that emotion for herself, these sorts of overt statements tend to create a sense of distance from the character’s POV—the sense that we’re looking at what they’re feeling from a distance, rather than feeling it for ourselves.

Because when we’re actually sad, we don’t tend to think “I am sad” and when we’re furious, we’re too busy actually being furious to stop and label this emotion we seem to be having.

Which is not to say that statements like this can’t work at times—only that they don’t do the work of carrying the emotion in a way that the reader can actually feel.

Include the thoughts that carry the emotion

To convey the emotion of the POV character in a way the reader can actually feel, you have to share the thoughts that carry the emotion—the thoughts that translate the general emotion (in this case, sadness, or fury) into the specific circumstance of this character now.

Here are some examples of prose that includes both overt statements of emotion and the thoughts that carry those emotions; in each case, the emotion would be more clearly conveyed by just the thoughts themselves:

Example A:

“I boiled with anger, resenting them both for talking about me as if I weren’t there. I wasn’t a dog. I could speak on my own behalf.”

Stronger: “They were talking about me as if I wasn’t there. I wasn’t a dog. I could speak on my own behalf.”

Example B:

“I grew more upset. This was not a good idea. I should say something now.”

Stronger: “This was not a good idea. I should say something now.”

Example C:

“I resented that A. could just assume that she was included in my project. Yes, she rescued me back there in homeroom, but she’d also coopted my idea. What else would A. steal from me? What would I let her? I felt guilty about my suspicions.”

Stronger: “How could A. have just assumed that she was included in my project? Yes, she had rescued me back there in homeroom, but she’d also coopted my idea. What else would she steal from me? What else would I let her?”

For POV characters, include “the language of the body”

The other way that we actually experience emotion directly—in our own POV, rather than that of an outside observer—is in the way our bodies physically respond to that emotion.

Which means that the other key technique for conveying emotion in fiction in a way the reader can actually feel is to include what I call “the language of the body” (as distinct from body language, which is what we pick up on from other people).

This is where a whole host of clichés come into play. Think of a tingle running up your spine as a stand-in for fear, your heart pounding as an indicator of fright, and blushing bright red as a sign of embarrassment. These sort of things are clichés in fiction for a reason: when we have emotions, we really do experience them physically.

Here’s an example of direct thought without body language:

“Where did my dad get off talking to me like that? I wasn’t a child.”

And here’s an example of direct thought with body language:

“As I stood there, I could feel a lump gathering in my throat. Where did my dad get off talking to me like that? I wasn’t a child.”

The second example is more likely to actually make the reader feel what the POV character is feeling.

For others characters, include body language

When we’re addressing emotion in another character, one whose POV we’re not in, that means including body language that indicates how they’re feeling, as well as whatever they’re saying via dialogue.

Here’s an example of dialogue from a non-POV character, Mr. White, without body language:

“Well,” Mr. White said, “we’ll just have to see about that.’”

And here’s an example of the same line of dialogue with body language:

Mr. White smiled, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Well,” he said, “we’ll just have to see about that.”

With alternate characters, overt statements of emotion take the form of statements like “Mr. White looked mad” or “Mr. White was upset”—and again, while these sorts of statements can work at times, you can’t rely on them to carry the emotion.

Like any sort of sleight of hand, these tricks take practice in order to become invisible to your audience—but once you’ve mastered them, they’re pure magic.

What are some of your favorite tricks for conveying emotion in fiction? And what pitfalls have you learned to avoid?


About Susan DeFreitas

Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, and the creator of Story Medicine—the course for writers who want to use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world. Her work has been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, LitHub, the Huffington Post, the Utne Reader, Story, Daily Science Fiction, Oregon Humanities, and elsewhere. An independent editor and Author Accelerator Founding Coach, she specializes in helping writers from historically marginalized backgrounds, and those writing socially engaged fiction, break through into publishing. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon.

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